A School Devoted Entirely to the 'Science of Cities'

The Center for Urban Science and Progress wants to study city problems — and to solve them.

The Center for Urban Science and Progress, a new research center that recently welcomed its first students and faculty in downtown Brooklyn, certainly has its eyes on the city. The ceiling-high windows of the main office track New York's sites and skyscrapers for miles — even catching a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. One long wall of an entire room is lined with dozens of flatscreen panels that will soon display the loads of urban data the center was created to capture.

"It's real fun to be living in the middle of something you're trying to study at the same time," says Steven Koonin, the center's director. "That's why we're here with that view."

CUSP will operate under the auspices of New York University with a small army of partners both public and private (IBM, Microsoft, and Cisco, among others). Its ties to New York will be tightest of all. The center emerged from the same New York City applied sciences initiative that produced the Cornell Tech campus currently being built on Roosevelt Island, and CUSP researchers will work directly with 13 city agencies. The school considers the city its living "laboratory" [PDF].

In time, CUSP hopes to become the world's leading authority on "urban informatics" — the acquisition and analysis of an enormous amount of information related to city systems. The center ascribes to the belief that "big data" will one day make all city operations and planning more efficient. That's critical to what Koonin calls the center's "mission-driven" focus: to study city problems, yes, but also to solve them.

"This is not your usual academic operation," he says. "I think if you want to have impact, which is what we're aspiring to, you have to have that kind of structure."

The CUSP main office looks onto New York — just as the school itself will keep an eye on the city.

The City as Partner

The inaugural CUSP class of 25 graduate students will get their master's in urban science and informatics under the guidance of a small faculty. Over the next decade, the center plans to add dozens of full-time senior researchers and a doctorate program. In 2017, the school will move across the street into its newly renovated home in the old MTA headquarters, which it's leasing from New York for a dollar a year.

CUSP projects will be limited only by the ability to collect information on a certain element of urban life. Koonin expects some scholars at the center to investigate the entire microbiome of the city, while others may try to count exactly how many people ride MTA buses. Whether it's infrastructure, public health, energy, transportation — CUSP wants to keep close watch on every element of the city.

"The data are now present where you can start to understand society at a level you never could before," Koonin says.

Some of the projects will be driven by the search for efficiency. CUSP and the National Resources Defense Council, for instance, recently won a joint grant to study energy use in commercial buildings in five U.S. cities. The goal is to create a rating system that can ultimately serve as an incentive for owners and managers to cut consumption.

Other research efforts will emerge at the behest of New York City government agencies. The city itself has access to way more system data than they do people to analyze it, so CUSP students and researchers will engage in data-conditioning ("cleaning" up data to make it easier to handle) to help departments operate — and cooperate — with greater ease. The center has also assumed a custodial role for the open data sets the city makes available to the public.

"The city is a full partner in what we're doing," says Koonin. "They provide us with problems, ideas, data, and opportunities to demonstrate."

Flatscreen panels will soon display the loads of urban data CUSP was created to capture.

The City as Physics Lab

In many ways, Koonin seems an unusual choice to lead a center for urban studies. He made his academic name as a theoretical physicist. When we met at the CUSP main office, he drank water from a glass with a picture of an Erlenmeyer flask on the side. One of the white boards on the floor was covered with intense mathematical equations typically associated with the hard sciences.

"We think you can learn a lot about the city just by watching it in a persistent, quantitative way," he says. "This is a physicist or scientist way of looking at the problem."

Koonin grew up in Brooklyn but hasn't lived in the city since the mid-1960s. (He says the city today is "more unified" than he remembers it being back then.) He's been professor and provost at the California Institute of Technology and chief scientist at BP, where he pushed for renewable energy. Most recently he served as undersecretary for science in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration, where he worked at the intersection of data and energy policy.

Under Koonin, CUSP will certainly live up to its reputation as home for the new "science of cities." The faculty has more computer scientists than it does civil engineers, and his ideal student once mined data for the Higgs boson before deciding to do something with more direct social relevance. When asked who makes up the "dream team" of guest lecturers he's established, the first name he gives is physicist-turned-urban scientist Geoffrey West.

"We're really about the full chain of data science — acquisition, conditioning, visualization, modeling, analysis — because we're mission-driven," he says. "The goal in the end is to impact the city in some way."

CUSP recently welcomed students to its urban campus at MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn.

The City as Data Hub

CUSP will gather data to help inspire its impact through many avenues. Traditional sources of public information only reveal so much, and private information is rarely revealed at all. So the center will also collect data from the network of sensors that currently exist or could be installed across New York: everything from thermal infrared images to surveillance cameras to mobile phones.

The outcomes will also take many forms. Some of the work done at CUSP will inform city government, some will be absorbed into the private sector, some will populate the research papers of social scientists, and some will end up in citizen hands in the form of consumer apps. As for what will become of CUSP graduates, Koonin thinks they could make a career in city government or spin a school project into a start-up.

"They'll have a mix of big data and urban savvy," he says, "and that seems like a potent combination."

There's a simple reason CUSP chose to focus on data: speed. Inventing a new insulating material to make buildings more efficient, and implementing that material into building infrastructure, can take generations and cost billions, Koonin points out. Using the data to discover an algorithm that detects inefficient energy use can produce positive changes in a year.

Koonin is well aware of the recent criticisms lobbed at Big Data. The push for constant information could turn cities into what the Economist recently called "electronic panopticons in which everybody is constantly watched." Koonin has vowed that CUSP will keep personal information private when collecting data, and he's confident that in the right hands urban data will produce brighter urban futures.

"We won't know until we try," he says. "[Big Data] will not fulfill all its promises. … But there's a reality there. That's what we need to be working to realize."

In 2017, CUSP will move across the street into its newly renovated home in the old MTA headquarters.

All photos by Eric Jaffe.

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